Sunday, 1 March 2015

What makes a good story a good story?

People We Love starts by inviting readers
to an art exhibition...
I'm in awe of authors who can construct a full length novel from what is, basically, a very slender plot – and make it compelling. That skill comes down to amazing insights into character and a first class way with words.

I, on the other hand, over complicate everything. I run multiple points of view and a number of storylines, and weave them in and out across 90,000 words like a mad tapestry. I wish I could keep things simpler!

While I was in India in January, I pretty much wrote a whole novella – 20,000 words. What a joy it was to write! Because of the length, I could only focus on one central couple, though there was a fair bit of back story too.

My new novel, People We Love, is probably the most complex I have written yet. It started with two major ideas. The first was triggered by a series of photographs I saw in a colour supplement, of shoes. Sad, battered, brave shoes, all of which had been worn by women fleeing the Blue Nile area in Sudan. Those images were so powerful that I wanted to use the emotion they provoked and, like my heroine, Lexie Gordon, I realised that 'shoes tell stories'.

The second was a memory of an incident my parents once told me, about an elderly neighbour with dementia who had been put into care in a town some twelve miles away. One day this lady walked the whole way back – along a busy main road – and climbed in the kitchen window of the house where she used to live. Why? What powerful instinct had propelled her back there?

As always, I am also interested in the effect of big incidents on families. In People We Love, it's the fallout of grief on the Gordon family from brother/son Jamie's death a year earlier. He was drunk driving – which was completely out of character. Why? This mystery runs through the book, and my characters can't move on until it's resolved.

My central character, Alexa Gordon, is also at the heart of a love triangle. And there are other characters with stories that need to be told as well.

Complicated? Oh yes.

For me, getting all this in to my story and still managing to make the book a page turner – as well as persuading my readers to invest their time and interest in my characters – is an enormous challenge. It's what makes the whole business of writing a novel so challenging, of course.

But why, oh why, can't I keep it simple?


  1. Second attempt at commenting :(
    Because sometimes a story needs to be complicated? Though-provoking post, I think like you I have a tendency to over-complicate but often it's not because I've created a complicated plot, it's that the characters start doing things that complicate matters!

    1. Yes, that too, of course. Sometimes, when I get to know them better, I need to go back and let them breathe properly early on - then things change - then it's back to refining again ... no wonder it takes me a year!

  2. I love the way you weave so many levels in. I can't do it - I prefer to keep a simple story. I have fewer characters, too. I don't think my characters don't have their own stories but I prefer not to tell them if they aren't directly relevant to my main plot. I suspect your approach is potentially more satisfying; do you find it so?

    1. Satisfying? In the end, perhaps, but the route to satisfaction is so fraught! I guess I write, in the end, what I like to read - so yes, I like the complexity and what I hope is depth.

  3. Really good post, Jenny.....lots for people to think about with this one.

  4. I think it's because people are complicated, Jenny, and our characters are people. And people get tangled up with each other and change things even if only slightly. I was thinking about your woman with dementia walking along the busy road and wondering about all the people who drive past her. Perhaps one driver found he or she couldn't stop thinking about the strangeness of the sight and couldn't forget about it - there's another layer added.
    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post.

    1. And each one of us would look at the same character and make up a different story ... or pick another person on that road... And yes, people are complicated. I can't help thinking about the bullied schoolboy who turned into a crazed jihadist. At last, a sense of power, I suppose. Another plot...